Recent data on Covid deaths and rates of infection in the UK are “very encouraging”, and though a third wave of infections was possible in late summer it was unlikely to overwhelm the NHS, the leading epidemiologist Neil Ferguson has said.
Prof Ferguson, of Imperial College London who advises the government, said he was “feeling fairly optimistic that we will be not completely back to normal, but something which feels a lot more normal by the summer”.
With one Covid death reported on Monday, and infection levels at an eight-month low in the UK, Ferguson said: “The data is very encouraging and very much in line with what we expected.”
“Whilst we’re seeing cases actually plateau at the moment – and they may start edging up – mortality, deaths and hospitalisations are still going down, and we expect them to continue to go down, maybe tick up a little bit next month but only within manageable levels, and so that puts us in a very good position to be keeping to the government roadmap – relaxing some restrictions in a couple of weeks’ time and then many more in June.”
Concerns he and his team had about late summer and autumn were “diminishing”, he said, with research showing those vaccinated were less infectious. “And so that has pushed our estimates of the scale of any potential autumn wave down.”
Ferguson added that the risk of vaccines being less effective in the face of variants was “the major concern” that could still lead to a “very major third wave in the autumn”.
It was “essential we roll out booster doses, which can protect against that, as soon as we’ve basically finished vaccinating the adult population, which should finish by the summer”.
On international travel safely reopening, he said one major caveat would be if vaccination was undermined by variants, such as the South African one, spreading in an uncontrolled manner.
But, he added, if by summer infection levels in France and Italy, for example, are the same as in the UK, “then there’s no risk associated with travelling overseas”.
“The risk comes from going from a place like the UK with very low infection levels and going to a place with much higher infection levels and therefore having the risk of bringing infection back,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, adding he had not booked a foreign holiday himself.
On the prospect of removing the 1-metre-plus rule on social distancing in June, Ferguson said: “We have factored these things into the modelling we’ve been undertaking. So to be clear, we do expect transmission and to some extent hospitalisations and deaths to tick up in late summer if we completely go back to normal, but at a much lower level than we saw, for instance, back in December and January.
“So it’s obviously a political judgment as to what is acceptable in terms of number of infections, but we don’t see any prospect of, for instance, the NHS being overwhelmed – with the one caveat around variants I’ve already mentioned – so it’s always a matter of judgment.
As long as symptomatic people still isolate, and the test and trace system continues for at least another few months, “then that will keep some sort of lid on how quickly infections can rise”.
He said there would need to be “much higher levels of infection in society in order to risk overwhelming the NHS and we think that’s actually unlikely to happen unless a variant comes along which resets that relationship again”.